NORCROSS — After not scoring since shortly before halftime and watching a 10-point lead turn into a 6-point deficit, Greater Atlanta Christian had 8 minutes, 33 seconds left to find an answer on offense or its season would be finished.
That answer came on quarterback Jackson Hardy’s arm and some crucial catches by his receiving corps.
Zac Mixon made the catch that made the difference on the scoreboard, a reception in the end zone in traffic on third and goal from the 11. Tyler Curland hit the extra point for a 17-16 lead with 5:04 remaining, and GAC’s defense made two crucial stops late to preserve a playoff win against Hart County in the Class AAA quarterfinals.
The Spartans now play at Cedar Grove in next Friday's semifinals.
“I knew Jackson had faith in me,” Mixon said. “I ran a post, got inside (of the defender). Right when he threw it, I knew it was going to be a touchdown.”
Mixon (two catches, 33 yards, TD) said the team’s chemistry is what kept them fighting despite the Bulldogs turning a deficit into a lead going into the final quarter.
“We’re all a tight-knit family,” he said. “We’re always fighting for each other. That’s what a lot of teams don’t have, but we’re all close together. It’s a tight bond, and that’s what kept us in the game and kept us pushing.”
GAC coach Tim Hardy praised how his team kept battling and represented the program with a comeback win against a Hart County team that knocked off previously unbeaten Region 2-AAA champion Pierce County last week in a tight matchup.
“Without a doubt, our defense was outstanding all night,” Hardy said. “We gave up a big run here and there, and they had a couple of good drives. But we made critical downs and critical plays in situational football and … held them to those field goals.”
That defense started out the night by giving the Spartans (12-1) great field position after Joseph Rose intercepted Luke Lee’s first pass of the game at the Bulldog 43. Jackson Hardy made a couple of big runs to get his team inside the 10, but a holding penalty turned a touchdown pass into third and goal from the 21-yard line. Hardy was sacked on the next play, but Curland came through and booted a 46-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead midway through the first quarter.
Both defenses kept the other team off the board until late in the second quarter when GAC added to its lead. A punt by Kacson Hardy on the previous drive put Hart County (10-3) in a hole, and it had to punt from its own end zone. The ball was returned to the 22-yard line, and three plays later Jackson Hardy (9-for-18, 150 yards, two TDs passing; 13 carries, 34 yards rushing) found Brooks Miller in the end zone from 24 yards out for a 10-0 lead with 2:34 remaining before halftime.
The Bulldogs responded instantly. Malachi Thomas (18 carries, 124 yards rushing; 8 catches, 91 yards, 1 TD receiving) flipped the field with a 51-yard run down to the Spartan 37-yard line. The drive stalled inside the 20, but Tucker Kim put a 34-yard field goal try through the uprights as time expired in the first half to cut the Hart County deficit to 10-3.
Thomas came out after halftime and did more damage. After running twice for 19 total yards, Lee (15-for-28, 144 yards, 1 TD, 1 interception) found Thomas with a short pass that the junior took 59 yards for a TD that evened the score with 9:01 remaining in the third quarter.
After GAC was forced to punt again, the Bulldogs let Thomas and J’len Lackey carry them on the ground. Lackey got 28 yards on a couple of rushes, and then Thomas gained 31 yards on four straight rushes. The GAC defense was able to stop the drive on the 11, but Kim was good on a 28-yard field goal try to give Hart County a 13-10 lead late in the third quarter.
The Bulldogs were able to stretch their lead to 16-10 with 8:42 to go in the game, but Thomas went down earlier in the drive with an injury to his ankle on the final play of the third quarter. He came back out in the fourth quarter but didn’t seem to have the same explosive ability he had earlier in the game, gaining 5 yards on a couple of carries later on the drive and catching one more pass for 8 yards late in the fourth quarter.
GAC’s offense responded to Hart County’s field goal with the game-winning drive that ended with Hardy finding Mixon in the end zone. The defense then stopped the Bulldogs once at midfield with 2:31 to go and again at the Hart County 31 on fourth and 2 when Choe Bryant-Strother broke up a pass over the middle that allowed GAC to kneel and run the clock out.
“Just a great night at Spartan Stadium,” Tim Hardy said. “Just proud of our team, proud of the way they represented our school, the way they represented themselves.”
GAC 17, HART COUNTY 16
Hart Co. 0 3 10 3 — 16
GAC 3 7 0 7 — 17
GAC: Tyler Curland 46 FG, 6:01
GAC: Brooks Miller 24 pass from Jackson Hardy (Curland kick) 2:34
Hart: Tucker Kim 34 FG, 0:00
Hart: Malachi Thomas 59 pass from Luke Lee (Kim kick) 9:01
Hart: Kim 28 FG, 2:41
Hart: Kim 30 FG, 8:42
GAC: Zac Mixon 11 pass from Hardy (Curland kick) 5:04